Friday, February 15, 2008

A Matter of Taste: Prologue

(On his Scanners Blog, Jim Emerson started a very interesting discussion on taste. Inspired by the post, I will spend the better part of next week examining this topic. I will also review Cloverfield, Juno, There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, We Own The Night and Charlie Wilson’s War. Below are my initial thoughts on the subject - comments at Jim’s site which I shall expand upon over the weekend.)

I remember it like it was yesterday even though it was almost 27 years ago. I was four years old, sitting at the table in my grandmother’s kitchen, as my parents discussed which film to take in that afternoon. The choices had already been narrowed down to two, Die Blechtroemmel (Best Foreign Film Oscar winner), or Clash of the Titans (where Harry Hamlin is guided in his magical quest by a mechanical owl). Now the films couldn’t be too different, and I recall my mother’s leaning towards the best foreign film Oscar winner, which usually means that the decision would be made soon.

To this day, I have not seen Die Blechtroemmel (and there’s a lot of sex in it, apparently, so damn you Harryhausen, and your captivating stop-motion effects which must have eventually enticed my parents), whereas I must have seen Clash of the Titans at least twenty times. We are all fastidiously forged in the crucible of experience, with nostalgia and the search for validation as fuel to the fire. As such there is emotional resilience in what we like, and how and why we like it. There are, of course, much bigger forces at work – that shape us, and our understanding of the world, too. And I suppose that’s where the class struggle argument fits in. Cultural snobbery, as I mentioned earlier, goes hand in hand in the modern world, at least among the self-described literati (I use the word extensively), with cultural slumming, with which the afficianado (by definition, of highbrow art) will rationalize their enjoyment of what they might perceive as the more plebian art of the lumpenproleteriat (this is not just particular to the upper and upper middles classes, but the petit bourgeois, too). The dismissal of critical opinion is the final step in this process. That, I believe, is the theoretical groundwork in a strictly dialectic way. But how does it work in practice? Easy.

“You know, I don’t usually go to these type of films, I prefer Mikhail Romm, and his somewhat ironic portrayal of socialist realism, but, well, sometimes you just want mindless fun, which is why I am now standing in line for High School High.”

I have no problems with people enjoying High School High. I do have a problem, however, with this rationalization process. It has three detrimental effects linked to the troika of points I brought up earlier:

1. It creates a hierarchy in art. As Carl Wilson says, and as Jim mentions, it “(divides) culture into highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow.” This arbitrary classification (or de-classification, if you like – Ho-hum) is nothing but addle-brained reductivism. By definition, it instills in the enjoyment of art a specious “class struggle.” At its worst, people start feeling embarrassed for liking High School High, and others vindicated (or entitled) for liking Romm.
2. It automatically labels people who enjoy this lowbrow art, who enjoy it without the pretensions I mentioned earlier, to a sort of cultural leprosy. As such, the artificial distinction of the first point is solidified, and has a converse effect as well. Our man who loves his Romm so much will jest that he is slumming when he watches High School High, just as the person whose life revolves around Jon Lovitz’s afro in the aforementioned film will quip he’s “being artsy” when he runs into Nine Days in One Year, and finds himself enthralled by it.
3. Finally, it reduces everything into a false dichotomy of whether the work of art in question is worthy of critiquing or not. “Well, it’s just a (insert genre or the filmmakers’ names),” becomes a mantra in this case. But understanding why we like or dislike a work of art, or why someone else, a critic we like (or dislike), enjoys something we abhor helps in the quest to constantly challenge one’s self. Why we are where we are, why we like what we like, and how we got here (again points raised by Jim). In the big picture, it is irrelevant whether or not High School High is any good (it isn’t) just as it’s irrelevant whether or not Nine Days in One Year is any good (it is). There were two comments recently at The House Next Door regarding film criticism (linked to the earlier round of discussion we had a few weeks back); Ty Keenan said: "Frankly, at its best, criticism is a form of light therapy for both the critic and the reader." To which Matt Zoller Seitz replied: “True. Two of my favorite descriptions of criticism are from Pauline Kael, who in her 1995 collection Love Letters told people that were always asking her to write an autobiography, "I think I have"; and Walter Chaw, who in a House interview with Jeremiah Kipp, described film criticism as 1% savvy, 99% auto-psychoanalysis.” Who doesn’t want a piece of that? Even if it is about High School Bloody High.

This rationalization overshadows the story of our interests, how we got to where we are culturally. Clash of the Titans led me to Greek mythology, which led me to mythology as a whole, and then to languages and poetry and essentially the arts in general. This is very simplistic in purpose, for I must away soon (I am seeing Cloverfield, finally – but when I get home I will pop in The Seventh Seal because I am cultured), but I would like to explore this subject further. The fact of the matter is we don’t feel ashamed of our political, economic or sexual choices. We should not be ashamed of our cultural choices either.
More on this next week.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Ali --

Once again great thoughts. I too commented on Jim's page, and even though my jumbled thoughts are only the beginning of me thinking about this, I totally agree with your three bullet points.

I find myself loving films like "Robocop" and even lesser action movies like "Death Wish 3", I can't really explain why. Even though I could reasonably go about critiquing "Robocop" and pull some major themes from the film...I mostly like it because it's exhilirating and violent in way action movies aren't these days.

"Death Wish 3" is mostly for camp reasons, I love bad movies, and boy is that one of them.

Your third point about the false dichotomy is what I am getting at here. Over at my blog I reviewed all of the "Rambo" films in preperation for the fourth film. What I found was that I progressively ran out of steam and material (like the films did) I found myself typing out and posting that mantra you speak of in your third point.

I think that as I tried to understand the social impact of the first two "Rambo" films, eventually I just had to break down and admit..."they just want to blow stuff up real good."

My friends and I do this thing every month where we rent movies we used to think were amazing when we were in middle school. My choice last month was "The Last Boy Scout" and I don't know, after revisiting it for the first time in 10 years, how someone could NOT discuss and critique that movie with more than a simple mantra.

It's so awful and so gratuitous that I could write pages upon pages about that movie.

I think you're really onto something here and I am proud to say that I think I find myself "slumming" as you put it, but not for the wrong (pretentious) reasons, rather I really can enjoy something like "The Last Boy Scout" and then on the very same night watch "8 1/2".

It's just the type of filmgoer I have been my whole life. I love both worlds and you take the good with the bad in both the commercial films and the ones for the "aficionados."

Like I said, I am still thinking quite a bit about once again I submit some jumbled thoughts.

Great post.

Ali Arikan said...

Hey Kevin,

I agree about The Last Boy Scout - I watched it a few weeks ago for the first time in ages, and I enjoyed certain bits of it, which were very funny. The action - not so much, then again 80's/early-90's action cinema has never been my cup of tea.

But enjoying the film for what it is does not require any defense whatsoever. One can like it for whatever reason, and should they feel like talking about, they ought to do so based on its merits - and not on a sense of rationalistion.